Universiteit Leiden

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Leiden Classics: the ‘Sweat Room’

It may well be the best tradition in Leiden: immortalising your name in the ‘Sweat Room’ after receiving your diploma. But is it really immortalised? The names were at risk due to crumbling plaster. Fortunately, a crowdfunding project was able to save this beloved ritual.

Defining moment

'Signing your name in the Sweat Room is something like your first kiss or the birth of a child, a defining moment in your life. When I tell the story to friends from abroad, they sometimes look at me in disbelief. There's nothing like this anywhere else.' This is the reaction one alumnus had after the university started a crowdfunding project in May 2014 to collect money for the restoration of the Sweat Room in the Academy Building. The swift success of the campaign surprised everyone: within barely a week alumni had donated the needed sum of over €16,000.

Famous alumni

But on second thoughts, that really shouldn't be so surprising: the Sweat Room is one of the most cherished spots at Leiden University, for precisely the reason so aptly expressed by the alumnus. It is not known who the first new graduate was to sign his name, but ever since then it has been a tradition, and thousands of new graduates have written or signed their name. They include Queen Beatrix, Queen Juliana and King Willem-Alexander, as well as the well-known Dutch Resistance fighter Erik Hazelhoff Roelfzema. Recipients of honorary Leiden doctorates such as Sir Winston Churchill and Nelson Mandela have also left their names here for posterity.
King Willem-Alexander shows his signature.

Cracks and holes

But all these thousands of signatures were in jeopardy of being lost. Pieces of wall were falling off due to peeling layers of plaster, cracks were forming in the walls and there were holes in the spots where the ladder touched the wall. Even the glass plates protecting the signatures of famous alums and honorary doctorates were at risk. Graphite falling from those who signed above them would get underneath the protective glass, eventually causing the names to fade away. All these problems called for a thorough renovation. During the summer months the restorer repaired the damaged historic walls of this famous Leiden room and new glass plates were installed.

 

But why is it called the ‘sweat room’?

For a long time, the space was a meeting room for the curators, after which time it became a storage area for the peat burnt for heating in the university's furnaces. In due time the room acquired a more distinguished use, becoming a senate chamber for administering exams. In the 18th century the room was given the new purpose suggested by its present-day name: it became a waiting room for students awaiting their exam results.

Dante

It is not only the thousands of names that make this room special. Both inside and outside the Sweat Room are unique charcoal drawings. In 1865 Master Victor Louis de Stuers let himself be locked up in the Academy Building and then drew a student on either side of the door: in one drawing the student is waiting, while in the other drawing he has passed his exams. Above the door, De Stuers added the following words from Dante: Lasciate ogni Sperenza; voi che entrate (‘Abandon all hope, ye who enter here’).

They didn't sweat here in vain

In 1919, Louis Raemaekers made a charcoal drawing of an examination candidate in the stairwell. Underneath it he wrote: 'hic sudavit sed non frustra' (no one sweats here in vain).These charcoal drawings were also restored this summer and are on view again. And that's not the only thing happening again: the first cohort of new graduates from a new generation of students have now signed their names.

(15 September 2014 - LvP)

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